Comfortably Numb

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Published on: 02/13/13 12:00 PM

Feature: Arundhati Rao and her Ranga Shankara

`Shankar would be proud of me“

There is an apocryphal tale of a journalist going to interview Sean Connery just after the actor had doffed the 007 hat. The journo had been told to avoid all mention of James Bond. And, of course, the first thing he asks Connery is: “How are you, Mr Bond?”

Similarly, meeting Arundhati Nag nee Rao (Aru to friends), it was difficult not to ask the obvious question – how is life without Shankar Nag?”

At first, there are many other things to discuss. Today, 11 years after the untimely demise of her gifted actor husband Shankar, Aru is a lady with a mission. She has acquired land in Bangalore’s JP Nagar suburb and plans to set up a theatre facility which will include a 300-seater auditorium with state-of- the-art acoustics and lighting, a book and music shop, art gallery, cafeteria et al, on the premises. Aru is going about things so methodically, she makes it look easy.

Karnataka chief minister S M Krishna laid the foundation stone, construction is about to commence soon and if all goes well, the complex will stand tall, a tribute to Shankar Nag, by the end of next year. “Ideally, I’d like it to open on November 9, Shankar’s birthday,” says a sentimental Aru. and you realise that Shankar still looms, an unseen but powerfully felt presence, in the vicinity of his wife.

There remains the hard task of raising funds for this complex, pegged at a cost of Rs 3 crore. Aru says the state government has been more than generous while corporate houses haven’t exactly been forthcoming with funds. She isn’t indignant, just matter-of fact. While a paucity of funds is indeed daunting, nothing can swerve Aru from her deep-rooted conviction that theatre, the very backbone of culture, will absolutely flourish given half a chance, in Bangalore.

The lady lives and breathes theatre. “It has always been my passion,” she states. “Today, I`m not indulging that passion, instead I’m in the process of creating space for that passion.” Which means going through 24-hour days, meeting with architects and contractors, overseeing blueprints and scale maps, liaising with the members of the Sanket Trust set up for the project (with veterans like Girish Karnad and MS Sathyu on board), plotting, planning, attempting to raise funds.

And what is she reading these days? A treatise on the semiotics of theatre, but of course. One starts to ask if she finds it all a bit much, sometimes, but she forestalls the question: “It’s fulfilling a dream, this project to set up Ranga Shankara. When it’s up, the auditorium will stage plays in English and Kannada to start with, 300 days of the year. There will be ticketed events to educate people about theatre, workshops, theatre fests, film appreciation courses…” Aru’s expressive face lights up with a joy that is almost blinding for the onlooker.

The project means Aru cannot act in plays right now.It also means the lady who made her mark with small but significant roles in films like Dil Se, Sapnay, and Kama Sutra is also turning down the occasional film offer. “No big deal, those roles will come my way afterwards. In any case, I’m not keen on doing those typical self-sacrificing mother roles.” And just in case you think this is a non-sequitur, Aru chuckles and says, “Well, Ilook an ideal mother, don’t I?”

What happens after Ranga Shankara comes up? “Oh, i have no idea of being the goddess in the temple I built,” she says. “I’ll do plays full time,Ill travel with my daughter Kavya, I’ll read, do all the hundred and one things I have been meaning to do.”

Though she would be the first person to disabuse you of any such notion, life hasn’t been very kind to Arundhati, snatching away her young and beloved husband Shankar, leaving her alone with a baby daughter when she was just 34. The following nine years were spent just picking up the pieces, immersing herself in her second love, theatre… and paying off huge accumulated debts. Now she’s solvent, but once again, out on a limb, raising funds for a truly worthy project.

Lunch is over and so is the meeting.  You start to get up, then impelled by some force stronger than yourself, you ask, “And how is life without Shankar?” Aru looks directly into your eyes: “Well, I won’t deny the loneliness. But, remember I told you he was a hard act to follow? That still stands.”

I leave, humbled by the sheer force of a love that, like Lillian Helman once wrote, ‘still unspools long after one has left the other and gone.’

This appeared in THE SUNDAY TIMES OF INDIA of 14 Oct 2001.


Arundhati NagArundhati RaoFeatureFeaturesfilmsRanga Shankara

Sheila Kumar • February 13, 2013

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